Our Limits Transgressed: Environmental Political Thought in America.

Author:Jones, D.R.
  1. Introduction

    In his book Our Limits Transgressed: Environmental Political Thought in America, Bob Pepperman Taylor maintains that Henry David Thoreau and Gifford Pinchot, the forebears of environmental thought, strongly connected their views of the natural world with their political values and commitments.(1) Taylor believes, however, that many of the heirs of the divergent traditions of Thoreau and Pinchot have lost this connection between political vision and environmental values. In an article that preceded publication of Our Limits Transgressed, Taylor states that "[t]he ecological facts of life threaten to challenge our most dearly held political values: justice, freedom, and democracy."(2) Taylor argues in Our Limits Transgressed that, to deal with this threat, there is a pressing need to revive the political ideals of Thoreau and Pinchot. The revival of these ideals is essential to grappling with the question of how to "integrate an appropriate understanding of nature within a more general theory of politics."(3)

    Our Limits Transgressed focuses on the political commitments expressed in Thoreau's and Pinchot's writings, and traces how later environmental theorists have dealt with, or abandoned, those commitments. In the end, Taylor calls for a synthesis of the best of the traditions inspired by Thoreau and Pinchot. Although Taylor claims he did not intend to present an intellectual history of the works of environmental theorists,(4) Our Limits Transgressed is essential reading for the student of environmental law and policy precisely because it summarizes the ideas of the major environmental theorists, while highlighting the neglected political values that originally inspired Thoreau and Pinchot.

  2. Pastoral and Progressive Traditions

    Taylor divides environmental political thought into two "well-established" traditions: the "pastoral" tradition of Thoreau and the "progressive" tradition of Pinchot.(5) While Thoreau and Pinchot differed dramatically in their views of nature and society, they both "viewed nature from an essentially political perspective."(6) Taylor argues that if this political perspective is ignored when reviewing the works of Thoreau and Pinchot, then we are left only with an "alienated naturalist" (Thoreau) and a utilitarian (Pinchot).(7) Taylor's first task is to delve into the writings of Thoreau and Pinchot to retrieve their political theories.

    To determine Thoreau's view of the relationship of nature and politics, Taylor explores the meaning of Thoreau's statement that "in Wildness is the preservation of the World,"(8) and examines many of Thoreau's writings. He concludes that nature offered Thoreau not only personal inspiration but also the inspiration to search for a better political community. Summarizing the "crucial and often overlooked political core" of Thoreau's philosophy, Taylor states that:

    [Thoreau] found that nature provided him with the means to criticize American politics and society and to imagine a more just political order. In nature, he believed, a person experiences the independence and humility that are necessary for building and sustaining a moral, free, and democratic community ... Nature supplied Thoreau with the principles he needed to ground both his social criticism and his vision of a more equitable America. For this better nation to exist, people must listen to the lessons of nature rather than the clattering of commercial society.(9)

    Taylor believes that Gifford Pinchot also espoused a relationship between nature and political values. Pinchot's views, however, were quite divergent from Thoreau's. According to Taylor, Pinchot, unlike Thoreau, was not seeking to criticize society but to insure that necessary resources were properly managed to support a society that was already just. Pinchot was a product of the Progressive Era, and his writings reflect much of the political thought of that time. Pinchot's progressive conservationism relied on scientific management of abundant natural resources; these resources, indeed, all of nature, exist "primarily for the sake of human prosperity."(10) The proper management of these resources was necessary to support a democratic society and the ideals of equality and liberty. Taylor explains what "equality" and "liberty" mean in this context:

    For Pinchot, the conservation of natural resources is of fundamental democratic value because it allows for the possibility of equality of opportunity for all citizens. Such equality is defined not so much as access to political participation or power than as access to at least a minimal level of material comfort and prosperity. ... Liberty, in turn, is thought of by Pinchot as the ability to pursue and enjoy this material equality.(11)

    Having revealed the political perspective of Thoreau and Pinchot, Taylor then traces the development of the pastoral and progressive traditions, noting whether contemporary theorists have remained true to the political commitments that originally inspired Thoreau and Pinchot. Taylor first examines the theories of the contemporary heirs of the progressive tradition of Gifford Pinchot. He views contemporary progressive conservationism as falling into two schools of thought: the "Neo-Malthusians" and the liberal reformers.(12)

    The Neo-Malthusians, characterized by Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich and William Ophul, rejected Pinchot's belief in the unlimited abundance of natural resources, but, according to Taylor, nevertheless fall within the tradition of progressive conservationism because they retain faith in the scientific and bureaucratic management of resources. They assert, however, that liberal democratic institutions are incapable of dealing with the scarcity of resources, and therefore Taylor concludes that the Neo-Malthusians have failed to maintain Pinchot's commitment to liberal democratic ideals.(13)

    On the other hand, the liberal reformers, who represent the other branch of progressive conservationism, reject the extremist concerns of the Neo-Malthusians. Taylor sees Aldo Leopold's call for a new land ethic(14) as the inspiration for these theorists, as well as for followers of the pastoral tradition.(15) Taylor identifies Roderick Nash, Christopher Stone, and Mark Sagoff(16) as reformers who seek an alternative to Pinchot's utilitarianism, but who also seek "remedies that fall within and reinforce the broader framework of democratic liberalism."(17) Nash and Stone focus on moral concepts of rights while Sagoff draws upon democratic pragmatism in addressing environmental problems. While Taylor views these theorists as supporting established democratic institutions, he also argues that they have rejected Pinchot's commitment to democratic equality because they have rejected the "materialist foundation of this equality."(18) Of the three, Taylor sees only Sagoff as being committed to maintaining a connection between the treatment of nature and democratic politics.

    While Taylor believes that most contemporary progressives have failed to maintain Pinchot's political vision by not integrating "protection and preservation of nature into an overall liberal democratic program of justice and equality,"(19) he finds that some theorists are trying to maintain the connection between environmental and political thought. In particular, he views Barry Commoner as one committed to "maintaining the connection ... between conservation and distributive justice."(20) Taylor views Commoner's commitment to socialism as a new version of Pinchot's progressive liberalism.(21) While Commoner seeks to "tie his environmentalism to a democratic program of political justice and economic equality,"(22) he also believes in technical solutions to environmental problems. According to Taylor, Commoner therefore falls squarely within the progressive tradition. However, Commoner also is blind to the need to find intrinsic value in nature, and he is subject to criticism for his support of technological management of the environment. Taylor concludes his discussion of the progressive conservation tradition by observing that while some of Pinchot's ideals are still alive, particularly in the writings of Barry Commoner, the contemporary progressive movement has yet to resolve many questions.

    Just as Taylor believes that many of Pinchot's heirs have lost political vision, he also believes that contemporary pastoralists following in the tradition of Thoreau have lost Thoreau's view of nature as a moral guide for developing an alternative political community. According to Taylor, pastoralism lost much of its political character after the influence of John Muir. Muir viewed wilderness as an "alternative to the human community"(23) and as a source of spiritual inspiration. Taylor concludes that Muir's interest in political problems arose only when "society threaten[ed] nature," and that he viewed American society as "something to be combatted in the name of an alternative set of individual values rather than criticized and reformed according to some more |natural' social order."(24)

    The Deep Ecologists and the Biocentrists are contemporary heirs of the tradition of Thoreau and Muir. Taylor first critically examines the works of Deep Ecologists Bill Devall and George Sessions and finds that Deep Ecology offers some criticism of society and provides at least a "partial vision of what a just social order might involve."(25) It also rejects the crude utilitarianism of progressive conservationism. Yet, Taylor views the Deep Ecology movement as being absorbed mainly with self-realization, and thus having lost the power of Thoreau's political criticism. Taylor next examines the works of Biocentrists J. Baird Callicott, Holmes Rolston III, and Paul Taylor and concludes, "Biocentrism's foremost concern is the protection and preservation of nature, not the reform of society."(26) The Biocentrists attempt to balance the progressive conservation tradition by seeking intrinsic...

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